University of Tennessee at Chattanooga sophomore Justin LaPorta likes explaining to people the fun he has with the “David vs. Goliath” aspect of the UTC Mock Trial team.
“I remember last year we were in a tournament against teams from Harvard, Duke, Northwestern, Brown and UCLA,” said LaPorta, a political science and public service major and a Brock Scholar in the Honors College. “When you say that little UT Chattanooga is able to take ballots from UCLA, people are like, ‘Whoa, what do you do?’
“It’s really reassuring to me that my education here is holding its own against some of those schools. Because when you’re able to compete just as well as they are, it kind of gives you that sense of, ‘Wow, I know what I’m doing.’”
On Nov. 5-6, the UTC Mock Trial undergraduate student organization took home top honors in the Grand Ole Tournament hosted by Vanderbilt University at the Davidson County Courthouse in Nashville.
UTC entered two teams in the competition. The blue team won the invitational with an overall mark of 6-1-1. Other institutions competing included Vanderbilt University, UT Knoxville, Brown University, the University of Florida, the University of Georgia, the University of Minnesota, the University of South Carolina, the University of Mississippi, the University of Maryland, the University of Alabama, Michigan State University, Rhodes College, Elon University, Washington University in St. Louis, and Washington and Lee University in Virginia.
The gold team, with seven of its nine members participating in mock trials for the first time this fall, posted a respectable 3-5-0 mark.
While mock trials are built around court cases, they are designed for students interested in public speaking, debate, acting, law school or academic competition.
“We have a lot of kids who have no interest in being lawyers. They just either like arguing or acting or some other aspect that comes out in mock trial,” said Mike Giglio, an attorney and Political Science and Public Service adjunct faculty member who has coached the team since its inception in 2008.
According to the American Mock Trial Association, more than 300 universities across the country have mock trial programs. Over the last seven seasons, UTC Mock Trial has earned three bids to the national championship and placed in the top 3 in 13 tournaments.
Mock trials are held in the fall as tournaments, building toward a spring national championship run that starts at the regional level.
“The best analogy I’ve come up with for the regionals is that they’re like the Final Four in basketball,” Giglio said. “The regionals are the opening round where everybody goes. Then you get to the Sweet 16, and if you make it through the Sweet 16 weekend, you go to nationals.”
The AMTA has trial teams present a different case each year. For 2022-2023, it is a civil case titled “Felder v. Koller Campbell Air, LLC,” a fictional airplane crash in which the spouse of a deceased passenger sues the company that owned the plane.
“This is a fairly rigorous academic thing because they really have to learn a lot about the rules of evidence and courtroom procedure,” Giglio said, “but these kids are always amazing.
“Every year, every tournament, many of the judges—who are local lawyers or local judges or past mock trial participants—consistently tell all the kids that there are a lot of lawyers in their courtrooms who are not as good as these kids are.”
As part of this fall’s buildup toward the spring season, UTC previously received the Spirit of AMTA Award at last month’s Classic City Invitational hosted by the University of Georgia. Also known as the SPAMTA Award, the award goes to the team that best exemplifies the ideals of honesty, civility and fair play.
“Although we get pretty hot and heavy during the competition, Mock Trial is not meant to be mean-spirited; it’s to try to win, but be good sports,” Giglio said. “As the leader of the group, I’m very proud of that.
“No pun intended, but our kids kind of mocked it. Our kids saw it as a congeniality award; they wanted to win the tournament.”
The next time out, his UTC students did just that.
The UTC group saw three members win individual honors while finishing atop the Grand Ole Tournament standings. Junior Stacy Cunningham, a history and philosophy of law, ethics and justice major, won an Outstanding Attorney award. Political science majors Emma Denham and LaPorta won Outstanding Witnesses awards.
In her third year with the UTC Mock Trial team, Cunningham was honored for her work in closing arguments. It was the first time she had received an individual award at an AMTA tournament.
“At the end of the trial, you basically have between eight to nine minutes to sell your case,” explained Cunningham, a native of Nashville. “Maybe you have the evidence you need, maybe you don’t, but you have to get up and give your speech. It’s just a debate battle between yourself and the opposing closer and it’s really exciting.
“It’s a lot of fun because you’re just in the moment; whatever comes out, comes out. A lot of times, it’s completely on the fly and it’s a rhetorical game.”
Cunningham referred to the mock trials as 4D chess because there are many dimensions.
“There’s the logical reasoning aspect that comes in during objections. ‘Do you understand the law? Can you use the law to your advantage?’ And there’s the rhetorical aspect of, ‘Can you make your case look good? How do you do it?’
“That’s what makes it so fun. I like to say it’s my sport; I love it.”
Denham, a junior from Chattanooga, is in her first year at UTC. The Grand Ole Tournament was just her second mock trial experience.
“It feels very rewarding to win an award,” she said, “but even more so to win one as a team. It really goes to show that all of our practices and hard work pays off. I am really grateful to have such an outstanding team.”
LaPorta, who hails from Birmingham, Alabama, said he chose UTC because of its Mock Trial program.
“My friend group in high school was people in mock trial who wanted to pursue the legal field,” he said. “My brother (Jordan) did mock trial throughout his high school career and at Alabama. He’s now a lawyer, and law school is my plan at the moment.
“My family’s middle class and money was a huge thing. When I was first looking at UT Chattanooga and the Honors College Scholarship, I remember looking up the (UTC Mock Trial) Instagram and the website and I’m like, ‘Wow, they have a really solid program.’”
LaPorta said he won individual awards for his high school mock trial participation, but being selected for his work as an expert witness at the Vanderbilt tournament was his first collegiate honor.
“As an expert witness, what you do is you try to convince the people who are scoring what you’re doing in the simplest terms,” he said of his role-playing, acting and improvisational skills. “I was an accident reconstructionist who broke down the plane crash, and I used scientific evidence to prove why this helps our case.
“One of the best feelings is when you’re getting cross-examined by another team and they start getting riled up. They start getting angry because you’re not giving them the answers they want,” he said with a smile. “You’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to do.”
UTC Mock Trial Team
- Taylor Johnson, Political Science and Public Service
- Sophia Kennan, Political Science and Public Service, Brock Scholar
- Stacy Cunningham, History and Philosophy of Law, Ethics, and Justice
- Nicole Knight-Fallon, Criminal Justice
- Sam Kline, Political Science and Public Service, Brock Scholar
- Justin LaPorta, Political Science and Public Service, Brock Scholar
- McKenna Smythe, History
- Catherine Corcoran, Communications
- Stephen Scott, Political Science and Public Service, History
- Jalil Bowler, Political Science and Public Service
- Ava Carter, Political Science and Public Service, English
- Simone Thompson, Undecided
- Comfort Senu, Criminal Justice
- Savannah Simpson, Criminal Justice
- Emma Denham, Political Science and Public Service
- Giuliano Duva, History
- Lauren Igoni, Political Science and Public Service